Under Way - Boatbuilding, old-school style - Soundings Online

Under Way - Boatbuilding, old-school style

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The Viking Yacht Company is turning 40 this month, and co-founder Bill Healey continues to set the tone at the sprawling 550,000-square-foot plant located on 55 acres in southern New Jersey.

Healey is 76, but he still comes into the plant every day with the simple goal of building a better boat. This year Viking Yachts with its 1,300 workers will produce about 108 convertibles up to 74 feet. (Viking also will sell 40 to 50 sport cruisers built for them in England.) Not only are sales strong, but the company enjoys a reputation as one of the best convertible builders in the world.

Not bad for two brothers from Atlantic City who never

really intended to build boats. In the early 1960s, Bill and Bob Healey bought a struggling south Jersey boatbuilding company named Petersen Viking Builders, moved it to a piece of property they owned along the Bass River in New Gretna, and shortened the name to Viking Yachts.

The rest, as the old saw goes, is history.

The brothers — “Irish twins,” with Bill 76 and Bob 75 — have complementary management styles and roles, which probably explains part of the reason for Viking’s success. They agree it’s been good that they’ve stayed in their own sandboxes.

As CEO, Bob Healey, a lawyer, handles the company’s finances and is politically active in Washington, on boating and sportfishing issues. As company president, Bill has always been the guy who built the boats and ran the plant. (Bill’s son, Patrick, is executive vice president, in charge of day-to-day operations.)

Bill Healey is old-school. He’s tough, hands-on and demanding. He doesn’t like excuses. He’s not a desk jockey, and he doesn’t “blow smoke” at people. He expects loyalty and gives it in return.

“We have a little expression,” Healey says. “You can’t treat a good worker too good or a bum too bad. A bum goes out fast.”

Bill Healey also has a common touch with the guy on the shop floor. He speaks their language, understands their jobs, and appreciates their contributions, individually and collectively, to Viking’s success.

“You respect your employees, and they’ll respect you,” says Healey, who graduated from St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia with a degree in political science. “That’s the key to running an organization.”

Bill Healey has been an iron worker, an amateur boxer and a U.S. Marine. Those experiences served him well during the early rough-and-tumble days of building boats in south Jersey. Back then, a dispute was sometimes settled with your fists. And Bill Healey didn’t back down.

“In the old days, we’d take people out to the wood shed and bang them around a little,” he says with a laugh. “But you can’t do that anymore.”

The aging boxer, who fought as a lightweight, is still trim and solid. “I do 100 push-ups in the morning and 100 bends, touching my toes,” he says. “Got to stay in shape.”

He learned to stand his ground early on, working as a “punk,” or apprentice iron worker, in Philadelphia. “Rough jobs. Big guys,” he remembers. The Marines taught him discipline. “Every organization needs discipline,” he says. “Without discipline, you have chaos.”

And he learned respect and how to work hard from his father, Patrick, also an iron worker. “We heard this at the dinner table every night,” Healey recalls. And Patrick Healey taught his sons that there was only one way to do a job.

“The right way,” says Healey.

For all his success and wealth, Bill Healey is about as pretentious as the dusty old red bike he rides around the plant. He slaps workers on the back, exchanges jokes with others. He eats lunch in an employee cafeteria. And every night, he stands near an exit and says good night to hundreds of workers, many of them by name.

Bill Healey is constantly working to improve the product. “Every day there’s something that can be done better,” he says. And if an owner has a problem, he or she can usually get Bill Healey on the phone.

In this world, that counts for a lot.

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Last month in this space, I wrote about a resourceful Alaskan waterman and woodsman named Greg Clark, who was lost when his fishing boat, Katrina, sank in heavy surf off Heceta Island in southeast Alaska. At the time, it was thought that Clark, his favorite black Labrador, Brick, and an unnamed puppy had all died.

More than a month after the accident, two fishermen found Brick alive on Heceta Island, several miles from the mishap, according to published reports. He was skinny, hungry, with an injured leg and matted fur, but otherwise all right. Brick reportedly swam to the men’s boat and was hauled aboard.